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Girls Just Want to Have Fun

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Movie star Louise Brooks was the iconic flapper girl. Her bobbed haircut was massively copied. The hat she wears is called a cloche.
To all you gals reading this, chances are your teenage life is not that different from what mine was like in the early 90s. Talking for hours on the phone, going to the movies, obsessing over cute boys, reading Seventeen and YM magazine, shopping for makeup and clothes at the mall, and also listening to music your parents disapprove of. Then there is my life now, which includes the occasional nightclub, bar, and alcoholic drink. We've come a long way baby from the Victorian age of corsets. And for all this, we can thank the flappers, a group of dare-to-be-cool girls who broke all the rules about what it meant to be a girl during the Roaring 20s.

Irene boogies like a flapper.

Now during the 1800s, young women did not have access to any of the above. There were no cars, no malls, and no phones. Girls were tightly bound by their community and the church and spent most of their time with each other and not with the opposite sex. There were lots of restrictions on what girls could do, which was also reflected in their clothing. Women were bound into painful hourglass corsets and full petticoats. Exposing the ankles were cause for scandal. Girls spent most of their time working on their spiritual and moral character under the ever-watchful gaze of their parents. Spending time alone with boys was out of the question. There was not, at this point, anything you could call a distinctive "youth culture."

Fast forward to the 1920s. America has survived World War I and is now the richest country in the world. With the economy booming, the middle class now has access to a wide variety of consumer goods. The telephone and the automobile begin to have massive effects on the nature of family and social life in the US. The rise of mass culture, in everything from the new Hollywood movies, to radio, to magazines, profoundly alters the lives of women. All the trappings of modern girlhood, from our right to dress as we please to our dating rituals, came about in the 1920s as America retreated inward after the war and partied hard in what is now celebrated as "The Jazz Age."

After finally gaining the right to vote, most women in the 1920s did not feel the need to engage in any more political agitation. The war had brought many women into the workforce and now women were feeling liberated from the rigid traditions of the past and yearned to break free. The automobile greatly helped this desire. For the first time, young people could go off by themselves and do what they pleased without their parents' knowledge. Cars also rewrote the rules on sexual behavior since young people could indulge in ways unimaginable a generation earlier.

The Sears Catalog brought fashion trends into middle-class America.
Out of this era of affluence and freedom came the "flapper" girl, immortalized by F. Scott Fitzgerald in such books as "The Great Gatsby." Previously, the word "flapper" had been associated with "loose" women. Now, flappers were young women who were staging their own revolution, only this one was cultural, not political. Flappers scandalized the older generation by revolutionizing women's dress, behavior and lifestyle. Even though flappers were only a small minority and tended to be middle-class and white, our lives today have their influence stamped all over.

The invention of movies and the popularity of magazines like Vogue and Harper's Bazaar caused women to start focusing more and more . Women wanted to imitate the beautiful actresses on screen. Churches and families began having less influence on girls as mass media captured their imaginations. The bob was the quintessential symbol of the new modern society they had entered. Who knew a haircut could have such cultural importance? But prior to the twenties, long hair was the standard. Having long hair was a symbol of maturity and femininity. Mothers and daughters would spend hours combing and styling their hair. It was an important ritual with which generations could bond similar to talking, reading aloud or sewing. When the bob, popularized by Louise Brooks, became the trend, it symbolized in the most carefree way the break with the past. Girls weren't spending so much time at home and their hair said they didn't need to!

Irene in her cloche hat and flapper dress, but without the bob. I did think about cutting my hair. Financial constraints led me not to.
Fashion made an important statement too. The influence of the French and Coco Chanel could be felt across the ocean. Chanel's simply designed hanging chemise dresses released the female body from the pain of corsets and became the wardrobe of every fashionable female. For the first time, "dieting", made its way into American girls' lives. The flapper dresses tended to have waistlines dropped below the hips and de-emphasized curves. They raised hemlines below the knee, which though modest by our standards, was daring by theirs. Women wanted to be slim and boyish and taped their breasts down to achieve the look. The familiar phrase, "I look too fat," also entered teenage girls' vocabulary for the first time. To be concerned about your weight was considered vulgar by the Victorians, but now the commercial culture encouraged it. Rouge and makeup, two items that were usually associated with prostitutes and other "immoral" creatures, became part of the flapper's arsenal.

Flappers would apply makeup in public and stare at themselves in the mirror. Such behavior in another generation would have been called vain, immoral and superficial.
Her red cheeks and red lipstick challenged conventional norms. Women now began to shave as well, since they were exposing shoulders and legs that had been kept under wraps for a century. Eyelash curling and eyebrow plucking were practiced as well.

So with a fabulous wardrobe and hot makeup, what's a girl to do but go to a club and dance the night away? Flappers became notorious for their love of the nightlife and for drinking "just like the guys." The sensuous sounds of jazz and the sensuous moves of the Charleston threw parents into a tizzy. To top it off, flappers smoked brazenly, an act so shocking that many colleges suspended girls for smoking. Morals were loosening and a new tolerance about sexuality took over. "Dating" was pioneered during the 20s. Before that, teenagers mostly hung out in groups, not with an individual member of the opposite sex. "Petting parties" gained popularity. Even though premarital sex and divorce undoubtedly increased in the 20s, the vast majority of girls still were virgins before marriage. Victorians marked women as either entirely virtuous or entirely whorish. Women in the 20s, even flappers, clung to those categories, in spite of the more permissive atmosphere. Every girl was scared to be labeled "promiscuous."

Clara Bow was a big star in the famous flapper movie
It's easy to look at the flappers as being silly, shallow and frivolous, especially when compared to the feminists who had fought for women's right to vote. But in a real way, flappers were making their own emphatic feminist statement by saying they did not see any difference between men and women. Women too, could have short hair and androgynous bodies. They could also drink and smoke and engage in sexual behavior just like men. Flappers redefined the meaning of femininity, moving it away from notions of demure and "proper" behavior toward the idea that you could be a lady and like your vodka. For better and worse, flapper culture now defines what it means to be a modern girl in America.

The flappers and their glamorous lifestyles have always enchanted me, even if in the end I recognize how superficial their lives often were. To get a taste of flapper-hood, I hunted for a flapper dress in Hollywood. After finding this red-hot vintage number, I headed to a blues club and attempted my best Charleston. But I, in good conscience, did not smoke nor partake in a petting party. There's only so much I can justify in the name of research!

The images we associate with flappers as drawn by a famous illustrator
All this brings me to ponder the phenomenon of Britney Spears. She is the Flapper Girl of the 21st century-only a younger version-revealing so much skin that I think the old folks from the 20s are rolling in their graves. When I ask high schoolers their opinion of her, I hear either, "She's a skanky slut" or "I totally want to be her, or at least have Justin as my boyfriend." Britney, like the flappers, appears to be flaunting herself and asserting her independence as a girl. She dresses how she wants, and dances with sexual abandon. But Britney cannot completely escape our culture's judgment as the flappers could not escape theirs, so she has repeatedly said how much she values her virginity. Some things never seem to change.

I guess my anguished debates about Britney mirrors what people said about flappers. On the one hand, I think it's great that girls have the freedom to dress and act how they want. I love glitter makeup and a good crop top as much as the next girl. It irritates me that girls have not escaped the good girl/bad girl rap and still have to talk about their "purity." But I do feel, that at some level Britney's cleavage-heaving attire and strip tease routines are a moral threat and give off the wrong signals. Call me a prude, but there's something discomforting about seeing fourth-grade girls dressing like Britney and worrying about their weight and how "sexy" they are.

Well, it's obvious that us girls are still causing controversy in a culture that hasn't figured out quite yet how it wants us to act and behave. Even I feel conflicted every day about the choices I make. Am I making a feminist statement or contributing to sexist stereotypes with my halter-top and lipstick? The flappers make me feel like I'm doing the former, so I just say the heck with the culture wars. Girls just wanna have fun any way they can.


Please email me at: irene@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Stephanie - Bap, bap, ta, tap, tap, bash! Jazzzzzz!
Nick - Batter up! How to make a quick $100,000
Jennifer - Hillbilly, foot stompin' good ol' time
Daphne - Step right up and see it here! Live premature baby incubators!
Rebecca - Parties, suicides, addictions, and tantrums: the birth of Hollywood
Making A Difference - TV: A giant slushie for your brain